Germany bank on experience as Julian Nagelsmann eyes short-term gains

Die Mannschaft call up veterans for quick fix ahead of Euro 2024 on home soil

Germany manager Julian Nagelsmann with Mats Hummels during a training session in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Getty
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A colleague once said that the least restful travelling berth for a Bayern Munich or Germany player is in the seat next to Thomas Muller. Muller is chatty. His nickname is Radio Muller. And it’s not a channel easily taken off air.

By this time in a week, the effervescent, evergreen Muller may very well have reached 125 caps for his country, a target he was cheerfully looking forward to as he posted a grinning message on social media as Germany set off for a long-haul adventure, to the USA and Mexico, during the current international break.

Seated next to Muller, readied for a lot of listening, was Mats Hummels, who had until recently imagined voyages with Muller were something firmly in his past.

The recall of Hummels, formerly of Bayern and now deep into his second spell at Borussia Dortmund, to Germany’s squad after more than two years since his most recent and 76th cap is among the eye-catching decisions taken by Julian Nagelsmann since being appointed head coach last month.

Nagelsmann is the third different man in the job since Hummels last played international football, the second since Jogi Low, who four and half years ago declared both Hummels and Muller had no future in the German national team.

So much for long-term planning. The recall of Hummels, at 34, is a perfectly logical move for the here and now. After crashing out of the 2022 World Cup in the group phase, with no clean sheets in their three games, Germany closed out the short tenure of Hansi Flick as head coach with one win in six games, conceding three goals each against Belgium and Ukraine, four against Japan and two against Colombia. To send out a summons for a seasoned centre-back like Hummels makes sense.

But to wonder if Hummels might be the wrong side of the veteran line would be understandable, more so if this week’s trip, and scheduled matches against the US and Mexico, were viewed principally as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup taking place in the States, Mexico and Canada in 2026. By then Hummels will have turned 37, and Muller, who has been to four World Cups, will be approaching the same age.

For that matter, the midfielder Pascal Gross and the striker Kevin Behrens will both be 35 in three summers’ time. Gross, of Brighton and Hove Albion, and Behrens, of Union Berlin, were also on board the plane that left Germany for America’s east coast, players whose promotion to senior international status have come very late in their careers.

Gross won the first of his two caps last month, just before Flick was sacked; Behrens hopes to make his international debut under Nagelsmann. He has hardly been a prolific scorer at upwardly mobile Union, but has four goals this season.

Nagelsmann, a strikingly precocious 36-year-old has, in his first German squad, 12 footballers of 30 or over, some of them with very few caps. That speaks for his urgent priorities, as well as pointing to shortfalls in rising young German talent.

Distant targets like restoring the World Cup reputation of Germany can wait. In eight months they are hosting the European Championship and dare not be absent from the action before the quarter-finals, as they have been in their last three major tournaments.

A run of form that shows only four wins – against Oman, Costa Rica, Peru, and surprisingly, in last month’s friendly against France – out of 11 games in the last year suggests they have a good deal of work to do to avoid that scenario.

“We have to become stable again, and use the time we have together to the maximum,” said Nagelsmann, pleased to be back on a training pitch. He says he has missed that part of management most since he was dramatically fired, less than two years into a five-year deal, by Bayern back in March.

Five of the Bayern players who waved goodbye to him, not all of them with warm, fulsome thanks for his input there, are now back under Nagelsmann’s command with the national team. It is they, the Bayern core, who may present some of his biggest challenges.

What role for Muller, who, as both Low and Flick discovered, still has a hard-to-replicate knack of finding space in attacking areas? Where best to position Joshua Kimmich, expert at full-back and in central midfield?

On the horizon there is also a Manuel Neuer issue. The goalkeeper, a year Nagelsmann’s senior, broke his leg last December when he was still Germany and Bayern captain. He then publicly criticised the club’s coaching hierarchy – while Nagelsmann was at the head of it – for dismissing the goalkeeping coach Toni Tapalovic.

After a long recuperation, Neuer believes he will be ready to return to Bayern action later this month. What future he has for his country, in their big summer of 2024, remains to be seen.

Updated: October 11, 2023, 5:24 AM